Posted : 2013-03-03 10:32
Updated : 2013-03-03 10:32

Tourism vital to airline industry

Korean Air President Chi Chang-hoon, center, plants a tree with company employees in a desert in Inner Mongolia, north of China, on Oct. 15, 2012. The country's largest flagship carrier has planted tens of thousands of trees in China and Mongolia since 2007 as part of its global forestation project.
/ Courtesy of Korean Air

By Lee Hyo-sik

The government should do more to transform the tourism industry into the next cash cow for Asia's fourth largest economy, according to Chi Chang-hoon, Korean Air president and chief operating officer (COO).

Chi, who chairs the tourism industry development committee at the Korea Chamber of Commerce & Industry (KCCI), said in an interview with The Korea Times that the nation needs to invest more to improve leisure infrastructures and make it easier for foreign tourists to come.

"Korea has emerged as one of top tourist destinations in the world largely on the back of ‘hallyu," or the Korean cultural wave. Over 10 million foreign travelers visited the country last year for the first time," the president said. "But to become a truly global tourism powerhouse, it still has many obstacles to overcome."

The number of hotels and other decent lodging facilities here are insufficient to accommodate surging numbers of Chinese and other inbound visitors to Seoul and Jeju Island, he said, adding that Seoul in particular will continue to face a severe shortage of hotel rooms.

Last year, the capital city was short of 17,000 rooms on average per day. By 2017, an additional 31,000 hotel rooms will be needed as more foreign tourists come here. According to the Korea Tourism Organization (KTO), the number of foreigners entering the country reached 11.14 million last year, up from 9.79 million in 2011.

"Some travel agencies sell cheap, low-quality tour packages particularly to Chinese tourists, as well as hire unlicensed tour guides. These have tarnished Korea's image among foreign visitors. Tourists are also facing a problem communicating in their own languages," he said.

Chi called on the government to ease regulations to allow more hotels and other leisure facilities to be built, as well as relax visa rules so that more Chinese and other foreigners can visit.

He also said, "it needs to crack down on unlicensed tour guides and travel agencies. Instead, it has to nurture those capable of offering high-quality services for foreign visitors. Above all, we need to create more multi-purpose leisure complexes in which tourists can shop, eat, and enjoy a wide range of fun activities," he said.

The president then expressed concerns over the falling number of Japanese tourists in recent months, saying Korean Air and other domestic airlines have seen their bottom lines deteriorate over the past year.

"On top of the yen's weakness, which makes it more expensive for the Japanese to visit Korea, the worsening diplomatic relations between the two nations have hit the local airline and tourism industries hard. The government and businesses should make concerted efforts to encourage more Japanese to come and spend money here," he said.

In January, the number of Japanese visitors fell 16 percent from the previous year, and has already plunged about 25 percent in the fourth quarter of 2012 from the same quarter in 2011.

Among the reasons for the decline is that the bilateral ties have hit rock bottom since September when former President Lee Myung-bak visited the Dokdo islets in the East Sea and demanded that the Japanese king apologize for Japan's colonization of the Korean Peninsula from 1910 to 1945.

In addition, Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's expansionary policies, designed to make the yen depreciate against the dollar and other currencies, has made it more costly for the Japanese to travel overseas.

"We need to promote regional tourism among Korea, Japan and China, like the European Union. It is important to create an environment where Korea and Japan maintain mutual exchanges, regardless of political and diplomatic situations," he said.

The KCCI will play a more active role in helping the private tourism sector boost exchanges with Japan and other countries, Chi said. "KTO and other state organizations have to make concerted efforts to promote the nation as an attractive tourist destination."

When asked about whether Korea should nurture the casino industry as a magnet for foreign tourists, Chi said it is a high value-added business and an effective tool to attract foreign tourists.

"I think it is okay to build more casinos catering only to non-Koreans. But the problem is no international casino operators are willing to invest here unless Koreans are admitted. But I don't think Korea is ready to do so yet," he said. Currently, Kangwon Land is the only casino where Koreans can gamble.

Singapore has successfully developed the casino industry into a new tourist attraction and has not caused significant social problems, the president said. "But it will create serious problems here. We are not ready and need more time."

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